Tag Archives: decline

5 Truths we don’t want to admit about church decline

Last Sunday in my sermon, I wrote about Jesus overturning the tables in the temple, and noted that much of western Christianity is waking up the day after the tables have been overturned. Our prominence at the centre of society is long gone. Now we are dealing with the reality of numerical and financial decline. These days church leaders are looking to experts, programs,  and books that will help us figure out what on earth is going on, and why so many have just stopped coming to church.

As a millennial and a pastor, I regularly hear church people bemoaning the loss of young people. This is evident to me in the fact that I have been pastor to only a handful of people my age. The ‘Nones’ are the new buzz group that concerned church leaders want to reach. Church people want to understand why so many of my generation are opting for something other than church attendance and how that can be changed.

The other group current church people long for are the lapsed members I regularly hear church people wanting to “bring back.” Programs like Back to Church Sunday are popular. Mission and discipeship gurus are all over the place, helping pastors, church leaders and lay people figure out how to lead churches, how to figure out what on earth we are supposed to be doing as the Body of Christ.

And yet, with all the focus on our decline as Christians in the West, particularly, mainline Christians, important truths are rarely spoken about. There are realities that I think many of us can see, but we don’t want to admit are significant in our apparent “decline.”

1 Measuring decline by numbers causes us to lose sight of our mission. 

I admit, when I see a new face in church, or get asked to do a baptism, I am inwardly excited. New people, larger numbers of faces in the pews, increased giving. These are all easy indicators of success. Except they aren’t. Jesus didn’t say, “Go therefore and get bums in the pews and money in the offering plates in the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit.”

When churches measure our ministry by these numbers, our real purpose of preaching the Gospel and administering the sacraments becomes a selling feature. When our goal is full pews and offering plates, word and sacrament become the means of filling pew and offering plates.

“Success” takes on a different definition if we stop using numbers to measure it. Preaching the gospel is preaching the gospel whether it is to 2, 20, 200 or 2000 people. Oh, and yes, I have heard that accusation that this notion is just something that pastors of small dying churches cling to… yet if our success is measured by numbers we have lost sight of what the Gospel actually does in our lives.

2 Many of our sacred cows are causing our decline. (ie. Sunday School & VBS, Bible Study, programs, music groups, church committees)

There are always very important, very special things that churches do that we are simply unwilling to let go of. These programs or activities began as life-giving endeavours for congregations, but over time have lost their ability to meet the needs and purposes of congregations. I know churches full of seniors in communities that are populated with folks predominantly of retirement age who insist on having Sunday School. There are committees and programs that have become defunct or purposeless that churches refuse to axe, even though they become a struggle keep up and don’t achieve their founding goals.

As we cling to sacred cows we fail to see the unintended consequences that are hurting us. Sunday school was intended to teach kids the faith, but has allowed parents to abdicate responsibility of teaching faith in the home. Instead of empowering us to live out our baptismal callings, committees on Stewardship, Evangelism, Learning, or Support (among others) let us leave this important work to a committee that meets once a month. Programs allow us to turn basic practices of faith like studying the bible, evangelizing through relationship, ministry to children, youth, families or seniors into very compartmentalized sets of behaviour rather than natural activities of faith.

We so often hold onto things that are actually hurting us because of deep-seated senses of obligation or loyalty. We get so stuck wanting to not disappoint those who went before us that we fail to make our communities ready for those who will come after us.

3 God just might be calling us to die. 

So many churches (and people for that matter) live and behave as if they are going to last forever. We make choices as communities as if our current state is going to be our static condition for the rest of time. We don’t have urgency… or the urgency of our conditions causes us to respond with flight or fight or freeze responses. We freeze up and choose to do nothing in the face of crisis, even when we understand that doing something – anything – is necessary.

What if churches had “Bucket Lists”? What if we made decisions about what we choose to spend our time and resources on knowing that we will one day die? Instead of working so hard just to stay afloat in perpetuity, what if we looked at all the things we could do before the end. There are not many churches closing these days because they made bold choices, gambled their resources and failed. There are lots of churches slowly petering out, after years of just getting by.

Admitting that God might be calling us to die means changing the way we see death. We so often see death, especially the death of a church, as failure. What if we saw death as a natural part of life and ministry? What if death was expected for our churches? Maybe all those mission and vision, discipleship and evangelism gurus might not seem so important anymore.

4 Our problem isn’t lack of mission, it is wrong mission. 

Most mainline churches in North America were started less than 125 years ago. A lot were founded in the 40s, 50s, and 60s. Communities of the faithful saw a need for a worshipping church in their midst. So they gathered members, raised funds to build buildings and call pastors. Energy was high, excitement was infectious, people came because the purpose and mission was clear.

And then buildings were built, funds were raised, pastors called and programs started.

But the mission didn’t change.

Most of the gurus or consultants that church leaders are seeking today have the same message: we have lost sight of the mission. If this were true, I don’t think there would be enough to keep the members that most churches still have from dispersing to the wind.

I think churches still have a strong sense of mission – build the building, raise the funds for pastors and programs. We accomplished those things decades ago, yet we still are trying to organize ourselves around them. Maybe it isn’t breaking ground, but it is making sure the carpets are new, and light fixtures clean, and shingles are replaced. Maybe it isn’t calling that first pastor, but it is making sure the budget can afford to pay for a pastor.

We are still trying to band together around those fledgling goals of starting a new church, even though we achieved them years ago. We don’t realize how people who want more than buildings and funds for pastors and programs are put off by our single-minded concern for those things.

5 We have let worship become entertainment instead of community forming. 

Whether it is mega-church contemporary worship or cathedral mass, whether it is a small community gathered for song and prayer or simple liturgy… our attitudes about worship have been transformed by the world around us. Our consumer culture has been turning us into creatures seeking to be entertained, distracted, and looking for things that appeal to our preferences.

I have heard many faithful church members, who are generally concerned about growing in their faith, slip into talking about worship as if it was a menu of food to choose from or different acts of a play. We enjoy sermons, we like music, we appreciate readings.

We have stopped participating in worship. We have stopped seeing the role of the congregation as integral to worship happening. While most church members wouldn’t agree if asked, we act as if worship could happen without anyone in the pews. We approach worship like theatre that doesn’t need an audience, but that no one would put on without an audience.

Worship should be the ritual action of faithful Christians. Worship should be a way to grow in faith as individuals and as community through prayer, song, word, and sacraments. The things we do and practice in worship prepare us for life in the world. We practice confession and forgiveness, we practice sharing God’s story and our story, we practice washing and feeding and tending to the world around us. We practice reconciliation and prayerful concern for the world around us. The things we do in worship should shape how we live out our faith. Our desire to be entertained should not shape worship.

Admitting the truth to our decline.

Admitting the truth of our decline is not an easy business. When the mission, discipleship and evangelism consultants come by to tell us how to fix ourselves, the hand-wringing that results is easy. But talking about these truths about our decline and how these realities shape us is not easy stuff… in fact, it is nearly impossible.

The fact is, more churches tend to slowly die, rather than truly change and find new life. This shows that admitting these truths in order to change them is harder than dying. Most of the time we will choose to die.

But that is okay.

The flawed ministry that we are doing despite of and in the midst of these truths is not unfaithful ministry. In fact, working with dying, flawed, wrong missioned churches and people is exactly the kind of work our God gets up to in the world. And that is also where we are in trouble. Whether we like it or not, admitting these stark truths about ourselves as we die, is all too often just how God chooses to bring us into new life.

And that is the most important truth of all.

Are churches really facing up to their decline? What other truths are we failing to admit? Share in the comments, or on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor or on Twitter: @ParkerErik

As always thanks to my wife, Courtenay, for her editorial help and insight. You can follow her on twitter @ReedmanParker

iPhone 6 and why churches should stop trying to get more people to come.  

Last week, as throngs of people stood in line at the Apple store, Courtenay and I walked up to our cell phone provider’s mall kiosk just a little further down and asked if they had any iPhone 6s left. A short while later, we had traded our old iPhones for the shiny new ones of our choice.

applecrowdWhen we had tried the apple store earlier, it was so busy that we could hardly get close enough to a display model to see one. At the cellphone kiosk, we were given demo models to hold and play with. While you had to make appointments to receive service at Apple, walk-ins were welcome at the cellphone kiosk. Shipping problems meant pre-orders were delayed and backlogged at the Apple store. The cellphone kiosk? We were the first customers to buy the new iPhones from our sales associate, and it was the middle of the afternoon already. And my wife and I loved buying our phones from the friendly guy at the mall kiosk.

It was somewhat of a surreal experience to be quietly buying new phones just down the way from the clamour of the Apple store.

As we experienced the release day chaos first hand, it dawned on me that churches could learn something from all of this. We wish we could all be Apple stores, with the throngs of people, not unlike the mega-church, but most of us are more like the small cell phone kiosks. We offer the same thing as the mega-churches, but most people don’t know we have it.

As a pastor of mainline denomination in Canada, my 5 years of ministry experience has been serving in a denomination in decline. There are a zillion factors for this, of course: changing social norms, less and less societal evangelization on behalf of the church, new census categories that actually allowed people to choose “none” or “other” in the religion category, less immigration from countries with people that are mainline adherents, a failure to evangelize our own children over the past 5 decades, judgemental and condemning attitudes by church leaders towards pretty much everything new in the world and so on.

I often remind my people that while we are partly to blame for our own decline, a lot of it is simply out of our control. 

Yet, in the midst of this decline, many Christian mainliners are concerned about getting people back to church, about returning to a time of full pews and overflowing offering plates (I am not sure this ever existed).

People often point to the other choices that people seem to be making instead of church on Sunday mornings as the thing to blame for shrinking membership roles. Sports, dance, music, shopping. Mega-churches, Evangelicals, praise bands.

These are the things that people want, or so I am told.

We need to be flashier, more engaging, more interesting, less old, less traditional, less churchy.

And yet, my own anecdotal experience tells me that my current high church liturgical predilections are “attracting” or “not attracting” just as many people as the young adult praise and worship band that I played in for years. Lutherans are coming in fewer numbers to Lutheran churches. Other mainliners, Roman Catholics, Evangelicals and new converts are also coming in fewer numbers to Lutheran churches. Apparently fewer people are attending church across the board.

I am not the first to say these things, you have probably heard them before.

But back to iPhone 6 release day… with the pandemonium of people lined up for hours, days even, to get their new Apple products, I wondered why all these people are here for this stuff.

And it dawned on me.

They are buying something. Apple is selling something.

grandarcade_heroApple is great at selling things. My cell phone provider, while strong in most of Canada, has yet to get a foothold in this province. Mainline decline is a loss of a foothold. Whatever we were selling, people aren’t buying anymore.

More importantly, people are attracted by things to buy, consume, attain, acquire. They want something new, flashy, entertaining.

Lutherans, with other mainline Christians, are just not selling what the people want.

This is a good thing. 

As I realized that my church isn’t selling what people want, unlike Apple or sports or movie theatres or shopping malls, I also realized that we don’t want to sell something.

The churches that do sell what people want, are peddling things that I would never offer my people.


Years ago, when mainline churches were on the top of the heap they weren’t more holy or gospel filled places. What we did was sold the only show in town on Sunday mornings, we sold social networking the old-fashioned way, we sold black and white morality, we sold plenty of judgement and we sold cheap access to heaven (for only 1 hour of time a week on Sunday mornings).


Today, lots of churches are selling the same kind of stuff: A privileged place in God’s kingdom, the promise of wealth and success, black and white answers, us vs. them morality, security in a dangerous world, entertaining worship, vanilla lattes in the narthex, music like you hear on top 40 radio, and cheap access to heaven (for only a sincerely held, unquestioning faith).

Now, I am not saying that churches who achieve attendance and budgetary “success” aren’t preaching the gospel, creating disciples or doing good ministry. Yet, I do question attendance as a metric of good ministry, or as a way to determine if the gospel is preached. If numbers really do measure good ministry, than movie theatres and pro sports are doing the best ministry there is. Apple is an evangelistic super star.

Now I have to admit, in my weaker moments I do fret about numbers. I am secretly prideful when my church is packed at Christmas or Easter. I am inwardly disappointed when there is a sparse crowd on cold day in January or a lazy dog day of summer.

Increasingly, however, I am asking more and more “what brings people to church anyways?” While I have been mostly unsure about the answer these days, my experience with the Apple store taught me something about what does draw the crowds.

As individuals, we may be some of the most pious seekers of Christ and spiritual enlightenment there are. But as people, as a mob… we are attracted by a good sales pitch.

And as a Lutheran pastor, I am not selling – not even offering for free – what people want at their basest levels. 

People want new, I offer old.

People want flashy, I have steadfast.

People want to be entertained, I point to the One who transforms.

People want easy answers, I have only more questions.

People want security, I can only tear walls down.

People want assurances, I talk about uncertainty/faith.

People want something immediate, I am interested in the eternal.

People want power and control over their world…

I can only talk about how we don’t have it…

And how God does.

And yes, I realize I am may sound like I am rationalizing decline. Maybe I am. But Jesus only had 12 followers, which makes me a ragging success comparatively. I still can’t help but notice that the churches that are drawing the crowds tend to look a lot like Apple product launches. They are selling something to the masses.

And Jesus, my friends, is not for sale. Maybe it is time we stop worrying about numbers, decline, fewer resources and smaller budgets. Maybe the spirit is telling us that God’s church is not for sale.

Maybe Jesus is a little less Steve Jobs, and a little more like that faithful stalwart whose butt imprint has been etched in the pew because church is not about getting something new…

…but about becoming someone new.

Many pastors and congregations just might feel like that small kiosk in the mall, that we all pass by because they look like they are selling cheap crap. We might look longingly at the mega-churches and Apple stores with their throngs.

But good ministry is not selling something. The Gospel is not a sales pitch.

Jesus didn’t command us to fill pews and offering plates. Jesus commanded us to baptize, to eat and drink, to forgive sins.

And those things don’t fill pews or offering plates…

… but they do transform us and the world.

So maybe it is time to stop trying to get more people to church, and just give the gospel to the people we have. 

Are we trying to sell God? Are “successful” churches really selling something? Share in the comments, on the Facebook Page: The Millennial Pastor, or on Twitter: @ParkerErik